Thursday, May 17, 2012

A New Pen Pal!

 “ . . . it was the poor caring for the poor that rescued them from total chaos.” – Toby Hightower

My home county in Kentucky, Trigg, is bordered on the east by Christian County; Christian County is bordered to its east by Todd County. Christian is the most populous of the three, by a factor of five or more.  Neither Trigg nor Todd counties have a daily paper, Christian does. Based in the county seat of Hopkinsville, the "Kentucky New Era" serves as a regional daily paper.
My mother and father still reside in Trigg County and like most really old people they still read actual paper newspapers. Mom was doing this very thing last week when she came across an article that she knew I would be interested in. So she clipped it out, pulled out an old-fashioned, #10 standard business envelope, sealed it up, wrote my street address on the front of it, (by hand!) stuck one of the world’s few remaining postage stamps on it and dropped it off at something called a ‘post office’.
When I called her dutifully on Mother’s day she mentioned that she had done this. She didn’t say a lot about it other than I’d find it interesting.
It arrived on Monday. Twenty four hours later I had a new pen pal.
It was actually two articles, one by the staff writer Jennifer P. Brown (“Writer’s quiet life thrives on contact, May 12, 2012) and “Annals of poor help explain mother’s role” by Toby Hightower.
Ms. Brown wrote kindly and respectfully about Mr. Hightower, stating that he recently moved to Indiana, is 91 years old and a full time caretaker for his Alzheimer-stricken wife, Iona. He is also a regular, twice-weekly columnist for The New Era, as well as a contributor to the weekly "Todd County Standard". He is a retired teacher and served in World War II. (Salute!) But that wasn’t the part that fascinated me most, it was this part, from Mr. Hightower’s own column: From 1927 through 1933, my father was the keeper of the Todd County Poor Farm.”
My mother was right. I was very interested.
For those of you who have known me for a while, you will recall that a few years ago I developed an interest in the poor farm system of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I had located the farm site here in Jefferson County, Mo, visited it, stood in the overgrown, untended and unmarked cemetery. (which actually was the seed for my interest in visiting cemeteries as a hobby/contributor to I contacted the local historical society and found out as much as I could, which wasn’t a whole lot. I even wrote a blog post about it on this site.
I’d stated that I was going to write something, a novel maybe, or a series of essays/stories on the subject. I did in fact start several chapters of a fictional work based on the life and experiences of a young girl and her helpless/emotionally incapacitated mother on a poor farm in the 1880’s.
Several attempts.
The problem was in the details. I knew the raw facts, that most counties in the U.S. had established the farms beginning just before the Civil War, and that most were closed down after other welfare systems came into being in the 1930’s and 40’s. I had names, census data, and a few clippings from archived newspapers across the country. But that was about it.
When it came time for my characters to do normal, everyday things, I came up empty. Questions far outnumbered data. Records of the era are all but gone in floods, fires and neglect. Very few survivors of the farms can be found alive. Most of the farms themselves no longer exist, except a few that evolved into asylums and nursing homes.
So the work dried up. I occasionally tried to fill in the gaps, but some were just too big. Names and dates were nice, but they spoke so little about the actual lives involved. And since I wanted to reanimate their lives in story form, not in some cold, statistical documentary, I was unable to go further without simply making stuff up. If I’m going to make stuff up to tell a story, I’d just as soon have space ships and time travel, it would appeal to a wider audience.
So I sent an email to Mr. Hightower. I told him about my interest and asked him, politely, for recollections, anecdotes and observations.
To my surprise, he was not only agreeable, but very forthcoming. He was a child when his father was appointed superintendent, around seven years old, but he lived on the farm for the next seven formative and impressionable years.
He replied: I am so glad to find someone who is interested in those poor people who fell under had times and wound up in poor houses.  I spent seven years of my childhood in close contact with such people and I have several stories that I will tell you as times goes by. I was seven (1927) when my father became supt  of the poor farm and the number of residents was around twenty-five but the depression which started in 1929 caused that number to double.”
He continued:
I will tell you a few stories of individuals and tonight I will feature an old lady in her seventies who was active in the cooking operation by her own choice.
Mary Mays was an intelligent widow with a son who was mentally handicapped.  Mary and her sister had both fallen on hard times through long illnesses and deaths of their husbands.
The two sisters and the handicapped son were assigned to a small cabin but they took in an eight year old orphan girl and mothered her tenderly. They kept the cabin scrupulously clean and Mary was the clear leader of the little unit.
One day Mary lost her most prized possession--her wedding ring- and was almost totally devastated.  A young Black man, Charlie Key, who was a quite ill resident, figured that she might have lost it in the dish water which had wound up in pig slop and he carefully sifted through gallons of slop and found the ring.
Mom had only a fifth grade education but she knew a little about leadership and encouragement. She baked some simple cakes and held a little celebration of the finding of Mary's ring”

He encouraged me to ask specific questions, which I did.
1. Were there 'typical' meals? Special meals? Hog butchering, etc.? How about during the dead of winter?
2. What sort of clothing was available? Bedding?
3. How frequent/infrequent were visits from church or charitable organizations? Sunday services?
4. Was there schooling for the children?
5. How much involvement, if any, was there with the local law enforcement?
6. Were the residents in Todd County segregated by gender/race/affliction?”

Plus a few more.
And by the next day, the answers started flowing in. I’ll not print them all here, but though none of it was really alarming, it was all very real and human. We spoke of human nature, of the peculiar but essential spirit that enables people to rise above the starkest adversity and seek, or if necessary, create a society, a family, an order amidst disorder, regardless of how miserable and bleak.
 In one exchange he closed: Looking back, I am unable to see how my parents managed, but I realize that it was the poor caring for the poor that rescued them from total chaos.”
Though this largely unilateral information exchange is still very young, I have already learned a lot, I’ve been recharged. Something will become of this. 
  This welfare system, with all it's warts and wrinkles stood as the national standard for nearly a hundred years. It describes the treatment of the most helpless among us. It should serve, for bad or good, as an example of that which has been tried. This is certainly history that, if forgotten, we're certain to repeat.
 Times were mostly hard for our ancestors, few safety nets, tough conditions, rugged souls. Yet as a young, immature society we still cared enough to try something, to do something, to care for those that could not care for themselves. And they were people, real people, hundreds of thousands of them. Sure, we hear about the cowboys, the railroad barons, the pioneers and founders, but what about the downtrodden, the forgotten? They too had lives, loves, joys and fears. Their lives were worth no less to them than ours are to us. These people knew struggle and adversity that would crumple most of us here and now. How did they get by? What got them up in the morning? What about their hopes and dreams? How do you sit around and just simply wait for your cheap (lowest bidder) pine box to be lowered into a forever unmarked grave, with no one you ever knew in attendance other than those other pathetic souls in the very same situation, to grieve over your loss?
And most importantly, what gave them joy? 

Friday, May 4, 2012

While my family and I were ignorantly ignoring weather warnings, dining out at a burger place in Arnold, Mo. Many of my friends, (yes, I have friends and yes, more than one.) were diving for cover, or as my cubicle neighbor Ramesh was doing, watching a dream shatter.

Shredded leaves behind my workplace.
Arnold is on the south side of St. Louis County, The storm whipped through the middle, hitting Maryland Heights, where I happen to work, the hardest. This wasn’t a gentle storm, it wasn’t even a typical torrential,  electric April thunderstorm. Sure there were wind gusts up to 70mph downtown that blew down a beer garden tent and killed a poor guy, but this one had the meteorologists really harking about hail. Big hail, NASTY big, baseball sized hail.
Hail is ice. Layers of it. As a frozen pellet falls, high lower level winds can shoot it back upwards in a storm system, coating it with moisture, which freezes at high altitudes, and then falls again. If the upward air currents are strong, as they are in a big thundercloud, they get tossed back up again. This repeats over and over, layer after layer until the stone is simply too heavy to be thrown back up again. Nasty thunderheads can produce ridiculously large stones. These stones are solid ice, hard and heavy. Dissected one can expose the concentric layers of ice formation.
Golf ball sized hail can be nasty, causing windshield and window damage and some serious injuries to exposed humans. We didn’t have golf ball sized hail, ours were different balls altogether. Think tennis balls and baseballs, yes indeed, officially confirmed, baseball-sized hail.
Yeah, ouch!
In some cases it appeared that smaller stones had bonded together to form stupid-large chunks. Tree shredders, car-destroyers.
If you live or work in the heavy-hit area, you lost any skylights you had. You also are likely on the phone with your insurance adjuster and a rental company. Forget it though, last check there were very few rental cars available in St. Louis.
So my poor friend Ramesh watched as the hail slammed down, the sound of rocks hitting his roof, sounds of windows and windshields being shattered.
Just a few short months ago, Ramesh took delivery of a new car. He’s a pretty frugal, sensible guy, a devoted husband and doting father to his young daughter. He is not at all a flashy, big spender.
For several years he’s dreamed of one really nice thing, a new car. He owns a late model, practical Hyundai, but Ramesh, like many men, had dreams of something a little flashier. He scrimped and saved for a few years, never sacrificing any family need. He put away a little here, a little there until finally he could afford it, and finally, proudly, almost guiltily ordered himself a nice BMW.
Guys like us make decent money. But not at all one-percent’er kind of money. Most of us drive reasonable, reliable, practical cars, family cars, except for the few single guys who may do a bit better. Personally I’m rather satisfied with my 100k-mile, 2004 Cavalier, but who wouldn’t be? Actually cars are just not my thing, they are a tool, a necessity, and in many cases little more than a metal money-pit. Some guys really, really like cars. Another friend of mine scrimped, saved and sacrificed all other luxuries to buy a new Jaguar XJR. It’s pretty much the only really, really nice thing he owns and he absolutely spoils that car. It is a pretty car, he’s taken me to lunch in it a few times. I have to admit, it’s an ego-trip I could probably get used to.
Ramesh works hard and takes very good care of his small family. This car though meant a lot. He researched, compared, researched some more, months went by figuring out just the right options before he finally pulled the trigger on that deal.
A couple of months ago he finally took delivery. He fiddled and fussed with every detail. He shined it up and parked it away from the heavy traffic spots in the parking lot.
Unfortunately though, Ramesh lives in Maryland Heights.
He watched from his window, completely helpless as the sudden storm dropped frozen chunks into his neighborhood. He watched, helplessly, as they slammed with a fury into his pride and joy, not once, not twice, but scores of fist-sized icebergs crashed into the pristine BM’er’s windows and polished metal.
The new car, with less than three thousand miles driven, was reduced in a matter of five minutes or less, to a punctured and pelted wreck. Big round dents, some the size of sledge hammer blows, dozens of them. The front badge, torn away, the windows and windshield shattered by multiple mighty blows. The storm didn’t spare the trusty Hyundai either, if anything it suffered even more.
I asked him, and even being the proud man that he is, admitted that yes indeed, he cried. I can’t blame him. Sure it wasn’t a physical injury or loss of a real family member or anything like that, it was a car. Just a car, but seriously, have you ever worked really, really hard for something? A thing you and other people admire and respect, and then had that thing simply bashed up in front of you?
I’d cry too.